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Examining the Qualities of an Effective Nurse Leader

 |  14 Min Read

In the field of nursing, good leadership is both a science and an art: In the former category, observation, data collection, critical thinking, planning and implementation are all vital components of the practice; but in the latter, caring for patients and forging and nurturing personal relationships are equally essential to success. Thus, the importance of leadership in nursing demands that one cultivate attributes and skills from both the scientific and artistic disciplines, which can be acquired and developed through education, experience and mentorship.

The qualities of an effective nurse leader span governance of oneself, one’s subordinates and, in certain roles, the department or larger organization in which the nursing personnel function. While proficiency in direction and management is integral to the success of any operation in any industry, it takes on an even greater level of importance when the health and wellness of patients are at stake.

What are the qualities of an effective nurse leader?

Leading Oneself

Much has been said about how crucial it is for those in charge to lead by example in order to have a positive influence on those who are working under and learning from them. That has to begin with good self-governance, which is equally important whether the leader is a patient care coordinator, clinical research nurse, head nurse, case manager, nurse manager or nurse executive. The skills and characteristics that fall into this area include the following:

Nurses in leadership roles must have the ability to read themselves well and accurately perceive their own personalities, behavior, emotions, motivations and thought processes. Additionally, they have to possess the honesty and modesty to admit their mistakes, learn from them and move on.

Dr. Kathy Scott, a former bedside nurse who has also held various C-level positions in healthcare organizations, says nurses generally have certain qualities or ways of thinking that can hinder their leadership at times. These include perfectionism and the tendency to demand that same characteristic in others, as well as micromanagement and “super leader syndrome” — a lack of trust in others that causes nurse leaders to try to do too much themselves instead of delegating more responsibilities to their teams. It’s essential for professionals to be self-aware enough to recognize these traits and moderate them appropriately.

The capacity to master one’s emotions, impulses and thoughts is also among the most important qualities of an effective nurse leader. If mastery has yet to be achieved, one needs to at least be able to control one’s mind well enough to maintain a high level of functioning, even in stressful situations like medical emergencies.

Self-care is a critical but often neglected part of this equation. In nurse leadership education and training, there’s often too much emphasis placed on managing others and creating schedules — and not enough on taking care of oneself through things like exercise, adequate sleep and meditation, and thus expanding one’s capacity to lead others.

Professionals in these positions must demonstrate flexibility, including the potential to change their approaches to certain procedures or aspects of patient care when necessary.

It’s essential for nurse leaders to be cooperative with others and open-minded to their ideas, while also having the humility to accept constructive criticism and apply it to help patients, subordinates and colleagues

At no time is it more crucial to be focused, disciplined, hardworking and determined than when providing medical care to patients. An effective head nurse must also have the ability and willingness to take initiative, rather than always waiting to be told what to do.

All nurses are required to be well-educated and well-informed about medicine, best practices and the responsibilities of their jobs, but those in leadership roles must also have a good understanding of how to coach, manage and direct people. Since learning is a lifelong process, they need to possess the ability to acquire new information and skills quickly and apply those to both patient care and their supervisory duties.

Since technology is an essential part of healthcare, having a good technical knowledge base is very useful for nursing leaders. Many medical centers now depend on electronic health records and state-of-the-art digital equipment, so professionals in managerial positions must stay updated on the different technologies and train new hires in them as well.

The capacity to make important and often difficult decisions based on myriad factors in patient care is common to all nurses. Those who are supervisors must also be able to extend this personal skill to decision-making at the team level, weighing numerous pieces of information to make choices in a timely fashion, even when under pressure.

Trust, faith and belief in oneself and one’s skills and intellect are also qualities of an effective nurse leader.

People in these positions need to be able to exude such confidence in order to command the respect and trust.

Healthcare professionals overseeing and guiding others have to show trustworthiness, credibility and consistency of character in the way they carry out their job functions and treat people, in order to earn and preserve everyone’s trust and respect. They must be honest, as even seemingly small lies can be enough to break trust and drive wedges between nurse leaders and staff or patients, potentially jeopardizing the team’s operations or the quality of care they provide. All of those working under head nurses, along with patients and their families, depend on them to be steadfast in their integrity.

Leading Others

Nurses in supervisory or managerial roles are responsible for building and maintaining adept, synergistic teams as well as a strong sense of community. The success of their mission depends on their ability to steer the ship well, even through waves of adversity and change. In order to produce great results, leadership requires the following characteristics and expertise:

A nurse leader demonstrates tireless devotion to providing the best care. They also foster the same passionate commitment in new trainees and all team members, while conducting performance reviews on a regular basis to ensure that the highest standards of quality and safety are consistently met.

Being highly compassionate and empathetic aids head nurses greatly in understanding and helping both patients and other nurses. These qualities enhance training and team communication, while enabling those in managerial or directorial positions to recognize, comprehend and minimize job-related stressors.

Dr. Scott preaches what she calls “kindness before rightness.” If one begins with blunt criticism devoid of courtesy, empathy and respect, others sometimes just shut down and stop listening. Leaders should think about how they would feel if they were receiving the feedback they are giving, in order to ensure that they are putting the emphasis on being kind and constructive and not on proving their team members wrong.

Communication Skills: Essential for any good leader, the ability to clearly articulate one’s ideas and convey information to others is vital for a nurse leader, especially when it comes to patient care.

Great communicators understand how to tell people everything they need to know without being too verbose, which is of particular importance in medical emergencies where time is of the essence.

Nurses in those managerial or supervisory roles must also perceive and reflect on how what they’re saying is being received and interpreted by those working under and alongside them. They need to be able to clarify or change their words — or alter their way of communicating — quickly in the moment if the message is being misunderstood. Checking in and asking others what they just heard is a good way to make sure that the information, opinions, concerns or directives that one is expressing are coming across as intended.

Another important aspect of communication is transparency. Leaders are sometimes not as open and forthcoming with information as they should be, thinking that sharing certain things with staff who are outside the executive or management circle would create chaos. But what happens instead is that nurses are less equipped to solve some problems and more apt to make poor decisions, because they have not been given all the information that would have allowed them to implement the right solutions. Keeping knowledge from people also sows rumors and mistrust.

Knowing how to handle tough problems tactfully and without wasting time is another of the qualities of an effective nurse leader. Whether it’s having to confront or discipline an insubordinate, irresponsible or dangerous employee; lay off good, loyal staff due to downsizing or restructuring; or deal with a difficult or even hostile patient, one must be able to act decisively to do what needs to be done while maintaining professional conduct.

In order to keep team morale high, a nurse manager or executive should be a good listener who carefully considers what subordinates have to say and thinks about the best way to address these staff members’ concerns and needs. Frequently, leaders are so focused on productivity that they don’t make enough time to gather the group together for authentic, in-depth conversations where they can fully hear and consider the ideas and thoughts of others.

Such meetings can be integral to working through difficult problems successfully and efficiently. Instead of so often thinking that they have to have all the answers, leaders should set aside their egos and open their minds to potential solutions from colleagues and subordinates.

Active listening is also a crucial part of patient care, allowing head nurses to ensure that the needs of everyone under their care are being met. They must really hear and concentrate on what patients are telling them directly and indirectly, instead of assuming that they already know all the relevant information needed to treat these people.

Professionals in healthcare leadership roles have to respect and work well with employees of different genders, races, ethnicities, cultures, backgrounds, beliefs, sexual orientations and ages. They must promote policies that protect and fulfill the needs of a diverse workforce. Additionally, it’s to the benefit of everyone from themselves to their staff to their patients that they know how to productively leverage the unique abilities and perspectives of those working under them.

Understanding how to be a good mentor and foster growth in one’s direct reports is a requirement for nurses directing or managing others. They have to be supportive, give constructive feedback and delegate significant responsibility to aid in the advancement of employees’ skills and add to the depth of their experience. They should also identify and offer guidance to nurses who could advance to nursing leadership roles in the future.

No discussion of the qualities of an effective nurse leader would be complete without mentioning the importance of forging and nurturing positive relationships with coworkers and subordinates. Part of their job is to identify their group’s common purpose, keep everyone focused on working together and create a strong sense of community.

Especially for nurse executives and administrators, it’s crucial to know how to utilize research and data to make improvements to clinical practice and inform decisions about patient care. These leaders must have a solid understanding of how clinical practice affects patient care and be dedicated to delivering the highest levels of safety and quality possible.

Dr. Scott points out that nurses in executive, managerial or supervisory positions need to be able and willing to discuss conflicting goals with their staff. One prime example is efficiency versus quality: Both have to be achieved and worked on simultaneously, but they sometimes compete with one another. And when that occurs, teams must have real discussions about it instead of denying that it’s happening, as that denial can lead to cynicism and burnout.

Leading the Department or Organization

An increase in authority and control comes with a commensurate increase in responsibilities, expectations and requirements. When one’s department or organization is responsible for treating and caring for sick and injured people, the stakes are as high as they could be. Here are the necessary qualities of an effective nurse leader in charge of a unit or medical center:

Nurse managers and executives in particular require a broad base of business skills and knowledge that comprises products and services, recruitment, training, scheduling, strategy, risk management, budgeting and financial analysis and marketing. Although some of these disciplines don’t typically come to mind when one envisions the job of a nurse, having such well-rounded education and experience in the business side of healthcare is one of the many nursing leadership qualities that will serve professionals well and keep operations running smoothly.

Even for experienced professionals, change can be difficult.

Nurse leaders have to be able to accept, adapt to and lead their staff and patients through times of change. They need to take the concerns of these people into account and figure out how to overcome their resistance. It’s also vital that head nurses involve key personnel in the process of designing and implementing any significant changes.

According to Dr. Scott, this involves rethinking the conventional organizational structure to create forums where staff can come together quickly, identify problems, propose solutions, test them on a small scale and then roll them out to the broader department or hospital in general. Introducing and navigating the right changes in the proper way requires a culture of trust in which people are comfortable learning, contributing and taking risks, and in which they have adequate feedback available to them.

Being the one in charge of making big, consequential decisions is not easy, but for nurse executives, it’s part of the job description. They need to be comfortable efficiently assessing situations and making choices without hesitating or freezing due to doubt or anxiety. While critical thought has to be exercised in many cases, it’s also important that nurse leaders trust their instincts and experience and don’t overthink things when decisions have to be made quickly.

Another of the useful leadership skills in nursing is expertise in investigating, analyzing and solving problems. This requires the ability to process large amounts of information, identify and concentrate on the most important data, figure out the source of the issue and formulate and execute a solution.

Effective problem solving for head nurses requires good organization and a methodical, rational approach, to ensure that the process can be completed efficiently and without becoming overly complicated.

Prioritizing and keeping track of tasks and projects is part of any healthcare operation, and this responsibility falls under the purview of many nurse leaders. They need to make sure all objectives are completed and requirements met within the allotted time frames, which means they have to understand the strengths and capacities of their staff, in order to assign the appropriate tasks and workload to each person. Then, they must keep a watchful eye on the progress of each project or item on the schedule and make any necessary adjustments to ensure successful completion of each goal.

While the moment-to-moment grind for healthcare workers is consistently busy and demanding, one of the critical leadership skills in nursing is the ability to plan ahead. Those who can strategically create ambitious but realistic goals for patient care and operations, as well as feasible plans for achieving them, are in a position to do well as nurse managers or executives, provided that they can strike that delicate balance between long-term goals and immediate needs.

Considering a future in nursing leadership?

If you have many of the qualities of an effective nurse leader discussed above, or you are interested in learning how to develop them, explore the online Master of Science in Nursing – Education & Leadership program from Carlow University. Designed for ultimate flexibility, the MSN allows you to study on your own schedule while still giving you the ability to interact with your professors and classmates.

Whether you’re thinking about transitioning to nursing from a different path or advancing the career you’ve already been building in the field, earn your degree in as little as 15 months and begin an extremely rewarding job as a patient care coordinator, clinical research nurse, head nurse, case manager, nurse manager, nurse executive or other leader in the space.

To learn more, call 1-855-511-6450 or email

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